Charles Dickens once wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and that may be the way we felt as we watched our most talented horses and riders jump around Santiago Varela’s maxed out course over the past few days. There were plenty of eliminations, retirements, and two exhilarating jump-offs. It was a rollercoaster, and I put away a few cocktails just to get through it. It was the first Olympic year to only allow 3 horses per team compete at a time, and the stakes were high.
First things first: Your Olympic medalists!
Individual Gold: Ben Maher (GBR) & Explosion
Individual Silver: Peder Fredricson (SWE) & All In
Individual Bronze: Maikel Van der Vleuten (NED) & Beauville Z
Team Gold: Sweden (Malin Baryard-Johnsson, Henrik von Eckermann, Peder Fredricson)
Team Silver: United States (Laura Kraut, Jessica Springsteen, McLain Ward)
Team Bronze Belgium Pieter Devos, Jerome Guery, Gregory Wathelet
Santiago Varela was appointed as the course designer for each round. Santiago began the Individual competition with an extremely unforgiving set of fences, and out of the 73 Olympians hungry for the podium, 13 in total (between the qualifier and final) were either eliminated or decided to retire their horses from the course. The precision and accuracy throughout both rounds truly asked a lot of both the horse and rider: Fourteen 1.60m-1.65m fences at 1.75m wide, the measurements from one fence to the next left no room for mistake. Most competitors were left with minimal opportunities to readjust as Santiago designed a course for every stride to be calculated.
Peder Fredricson (SWE) and All In. Arnd Bronkhorst photo.
Lest we forget, horses are not machines. Peak athleticism should be exemplified at a rate that allows for our horses to show at their best ability. A challenging course is always exciting but when the horses are overfaced it becomes stressful to watch. A tough decision for all course designers: what makes the perfect course?
Tokyo Agrees with Sweden
A well-deserved team gold medal for Swedish riders Malin Baryard-Johnsson, Henrik von Eckermann, and Peder Fredricson was awarded after a stellar performance at the Equestrian Park in Tokyo. Champion horses Indiana, All In and King Edward astoundingly competed in both individual and team competition rounds with no fourth rider to offer fresh legs. Remarkably, All In is now one of three horses to ever finish an Olympic show jumping games with zero faults.
Each rider for Team Sweden offered smart choices of inside turns with speed and never let their horse stop thinking. The training and preparedness shined for this team and confirmed Sweden’s hard work. Both King Edward and All In competed barefoot as well, which we don’t see at the top levels all too often.
We all have our favorites. When it comes to the big fences, it is amazing how these beautiful animals move so gracefully and with such power. Here are some of my standout favorites:
Quel Filou 13 (Quidam’s Rubin x Miss Marple) 15 yo gelding. Rider: Mathieu Billot. With a jump all of his own, we give Mathieu of France a round of applause for holding on! Filou’s athleticism as he rockets into the air appears extremely difficult to stay with at times, but surely a reason why this horse has climbed his way to the top!
Quel Filou 13, ridden by Mathieu Billot (FRA), shows off his powerful and unique jumping style. Arnd Bronkhorst photo.
Galanthos Shk (Arthos R x Canta B) 10 yo gelding. Rider: Mouda Zeyada. This chestnut from Egypt has the most beautiful back end that so fiercely kicked high above those 1.65m oxers. His effort and stamina could be felt around the world.
Quel Homme de Hus (Quidam de Revel x P-Hawaii) 15 yo stallion. Rider: Jérôme Guery. This beautiful boy carried himself like a prince. At times it was hard to tell if he would manage being held together so packed up. But with that big stride and no sweat demeanor, Quel Homme was a joy.
Contagious (Contagio x For Mary) 12 yo gelding. Rider: McLain Ward. Stealth, fresh and ready. Contagious was always in perfect form, a lot like his rider, ears forward, aiming to please. There is nothing better than a horse who loves his job.
Indiana (Kashmir Van Schuttershof x Halifax) 13 yo mare. Rider: Malin Baryard-Johnsson. This mare was game, hungry for the jumps and looking through the turns. She was here to win and was not wasting any time.
Setting the Example: Air Vests
While we have historically thought of air vests as an eventer’s safety measure, we’re gladly seeing them in the show jumping now as well. Air vests have evolved to offer protection while being comfortable and discreet. This vest can be vital for protection in case of a fall and is built into the riders’ show jackets, automatically deploying during a fall to protect vital organs.
Israel representative Ashlee Bond rocked her safety vest and luckily teammate Teddy Vlock wore his as well as he endured a brutal fall in the team qualifier. Thankfully Teddy and his horse walked away unharmed. We watched Irish Olympian Kevin Babington in 2019 tragically crash during competition, and he now promotes the use of air vests at all times. The International Equestrian Federation (FEI) did replace top hats this year for dressage with certified helmets, so as for show jumping - where risk of injury increases statistically - should air vests become more commonplace?
The American/Swedish Jump Off
It was down to the wire as the teams battled it out on Saturday night. French rider Penelope Leprevost was eliminated after a refusal which quickly placed Sweden and the United States into a last-minute jump off. Even 13 hours behind, I could feel the electricity in the air. Laura Kraut (USA) first set the stage with classic, fast and clean riding. The remaining five Jessica Springsteen (USA), McLain Ward (USA), Malin Baryard-Johnson (SWE), Henrik von Eckermann (SWE), and Peder Fredricson (SWE) took the opportunity to represent how it’s done. It was a true Masterclass on how to ride under pressure.
Malin Baryard-Johnsson (SWE) and Indiana shaved fractions of seconds off their time with tight, strategic turns. Arnd Bronkhorst photo.
Both the USA and Sweden rode with speed and bravery as each ride shaved fractions of seconds off their time by taking new angles and tighter turns. Team finals ended as an absolute nail-biter and left us on the edge of our seats. If you have yet to watch, click here and bring popcorn!
All photos by Arnd Bronkhorst. Feature Image - Ben Maher (GBR) riding to gold on Explosion.
Written by Troy Anna Smith
Troy Anna Smith is a Nashville-based writer with a BA in Journalism from Penn State University. Troy finds her passion through her daughter, her love of horses, and her two rescue pups. Some of her writing can be found in The Plaid Horse Magazine, Sidelines Magazine, and The Spark by Heels Down.